Tuesday, September 23, 2008

COUNTING THE COST OF MALAY CONSERVATISM


By Karim Raslan

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 23 — Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, like his cousin, Education Minister Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein, are “bangsawan” (or aristocratic) politicians. To outsiders, it would appear that their rise through Umno has been charmed. In reality, their rise was propelled by a combination of lineage, “noblesse oblige”, education, the personal wealth linked to their family networks (it's safe to say that they know or have connections to everyone of political or economic consequence), glamour and the deft management of party politics.

At their best, they can be the most racially inclusive of figures: cosmopolitan, urbane and well-educated. In this respect, they reflect the way modern Malay royals have themselves become ineluctably “Malay-sian”, with royal palaces bestowing Datukships on the socially ambitious of all races.

At their worst, the “bangsawan” politicians can be deeply conservative, resistant to change and overly cautious. In the case of Najib, his continuing refusal to endorse and promote the reform agenda is undermining his own career.

Still, English language-speaking Malaysians have always tended to feel a close affinity with “bangsawan” leaders. They tend to project onto them the best qualities of their famous fathers — Tun Abdul Razak in Najib's case; and Tun Hussein Onn's in Hishammuddin's — forgetting that each has his own particular weaknesses. Because of this, Malaysians are also the angriest when they feel these “bangsawan” politicians have let them down (as Hishammuddin did with his kris-wielding antics).

As Najib appears to be closing in on the premiership, it's time to review the prospect of a “bangsawan” administration. Back in March, I interviewed the Deputy Prime Minister at his residence in Pekan.

The Razak family compound, with its grove of mature tembusu trees, is at the edge of the town. The original house, the late Razak's home, has been renovated, repainted and air-conditioned. To the right of the house, there are offices as well as a large semi-temporary structure with a concrete floor and a metal roof, and open on four sides. Food was laid out on the tables inside. The compound is an industrial-scale political infrastructure framed by the sluggish waters of the Pahang River flowing behind it.

Pekan is almost exclusively Malay. It is a royal town imbued with the Sultan's brooding presence. Najib with his hereditary title, Orang Kaya Inderapura, is very much “of” the Istana. He was also Menteri Besar of Pahang from 1982-86. These ties reflect Umno's traditional linkages to the royal houses, bonds that are almost alien to opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim with his more activist and populist ways.

Historically, there have been two centres of authority in Malay society: the masjid and the Istana — the first spiritual and the second temporal. There has always been a degree of tension between the two. Umno's links are with the palace. The opposition Pas has a tight grip on the masjid. Despite what Anwar may envisage, this year could in fact presage a historic shift in power to the masjid.

Still, there's no doubt that Najib is one of Malaysia's smartest politicians. He is well-read and has a rigorous mind. His unflappable disposition is well suited to the demands of governance. He presides over meetings effortlessly, can summarise discussions succinctly and understands the importance of prioritising issues. In technocratic terms, he far surpasses both Prime Minister Datuk Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and even Anwar, whose flamboyant style is less suited to the tedium of Cabinet life.

However, Najib's superiority vis-a-vis his peers is less a reflection of his own personal excellence than the sheer weakness of Umno's human resource development. Capable Malay men and women avoid political life like the plague.

Time in Pekan was limited, so I was forced to interview Najib in his stretch Proton on the way to the Kuantan airport. I started by talking about the Indian activist group Hindraf and the devastating impact the temple demolitions in Selangor have had on Indian support for the ruling coalition.

Najib had spoken to an exclusively Indian gathering a few weeks before. To my surprise, he had made a point of apologising for the destruction of the temples.

As we talked, Najib explained: “The level of consciousness for all communities has risen. The nature of Malaysian society is going to be much more complex. We need to meet the rising expectations of Malaysian society — with globalisation and IT.”

I sensed in him a willingness to be all-embracing and open: “As Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, you belong to all communities,” he said. “You have to care for them and listen to their needs and aspirations. At the same time, we have our own constituents. We also need to maintain and deal with them. However, this isn't a zero sum game.”

“We are dominant and we have responsibilities to other races. The other races look up to Umno,” he added. As the conversation returned to Umno, his innate conservatism kicked in.

Najib's much vaunted capabilities will amount to very little as long as he neglects the reform agenda. As it stands, there are too many unanswered questions surrounding the Altantuya murder case.

He must come to terms with the fact that Malaysians look upon him with a jaundiced eye because they don't trust the institutions of state. Were he to push the reform agenda — cleaning up the courts, professionalising the police force and freeing up the media — the doubts about him would begin to fall away.

He must promote greater transparency and accountability, especially now that he is also Finance Minister. His confidence in the face of scrutiny would be the best way to head off the critics and prepare his party for a more people-friendly future. A failure to do so would be fatal both to him and Umno. - Straits Times

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